The internet is dominated by US companies and universities. What happens there is therefore profoundly important for the future of cyberspace. And what is happening there now stinks.
Take a look at www.eff.org, home page of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF describes itself as a “civil liberties organisation working to protect your rights on-line.” It is running “A Campaign To Stop Unconstitutional Net Censorship Legislation.” The people gunning for them seem to be the Christian right and the FBI.
The “Christian Coalition” is sponsoring a measure proposed by Congressman Hyde, a Republican from Illinois. According to the EFF, this would “dumb down” all communications on the Net to the level where they would be “acceptable to children.”
I’m not sure that’s fair to children-but we’re talking serious censorship, with potentially severe criminal penalties. All right, the FBI couldn’t come over here and arrest a UK citizen for putting something untoward on the Net, but where America leads Britain often follows.
The EFF has issued an “alert” and is calling on sympathisers to contact members of the House of Representatives and the Senate: addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses are provided. So if you want to do a bit of cyberlobbying, here’s your chance.
The EFF publishes a list of organisations which are supporting its campaign. There are groups from New Zealand, The Netherlands and France, but none from the UK. Are we ignorant, apathetic or hostile?
Regrettably, in the US the term “Internet” seems to have become synonymous with the idea of pornography and weirdos, so Congressman Hyde’s concerns are not entirely misplaced, only his proposed solution.
To get on to the Internet you have to have a modem: a device which connects your computer to the telephone system. They cost from about ?100 upwards. In our house only my PC has one. My children (aged 9 and 7) have surfed the Internet and e-mailed their friends from my machine, but so far only when I’ve been around to supervise. I know this can’t last much longer, so in anticipation of the day when they do it by themselves, I’ve been searching out a few of the smuttier parts of cyberspace-the places my children might stumble by accident, or design.
Well, dear readers, I am certainly not a prude, but some of the stuff I found was the product of very sick minds. No doubt gross and repeated sexual acts involving a range of animals, or incest as a family norm, are things which do happen; so I cannot say they should never, in any circumstances, be written down anywhere by anyone. But should they be posted to essentially public forums on the Internet? I don’t think so. Is that a reason for criminalising a whole swathe of activity, simply because it might not instantly be “suitable for children”? I don’t think so either. Adults have rights too.
The trouble is there is no cyberspace equivalent of the “top shelf” or the stern librarian to ask you exactly why you want to take that particular book home. You can and do get warnings on some Net sites that the material may be sexually explicit or feature violence in some form, but in my early teenage years that would merely have guaranteed that I went straight to it. Programmes are becoming available which automatically block out particular words or images, but I have not been able to locate one. I will renew my efforts and report back.
If technology does not provide an answer soon we will see two Internets emerge: one which will be interesting enough but essentially full of anodyne pap (probably run by or through a commercial organisation such as CompuServe or Microsoft Network, which will take responsibility for moderating its content). The other will be a place where respectable people and companies do not go, except very definitely at their own risk. It will be free, and it will doubtless become the default location for the information poor.
Seeking the Internet of the future I ventured into Microsoft Network’s domain and found its Movie Review Magazine. It gave pride of place to Father of the Bride Part II, headlined “An absolutely perfect movie.” It then listed its main qualities as “Extremely funny. Touching. No Profanity.”
Elsewhere Microsoft provided a review of Pocahontas, the latest Disney offering, where it listed its qualities as, in the order given, “Profanity: none. Sex/nudity: none. Violence: some killing. Drugs/alcohol: none. Action: not very much. Comedy: pretty funny.” They might have added: “Relationship to historical fact: none.”
Another on-line system has just come on to the market stressing that everything it provides is “suitable for all the family.” It’s called “UK-Online.” As the title suggests, UK-Online aims to provide UK-centric information. This is to be applauded, and it certainly seems to provide good value for money: ?14.99 per month with up to four e-mail addresses included, and no signing up fees or online charges. Online has also introduced what may be the first cyber-Agony Aunt: “E-mail Emily.” Take a look at www.demo.ukonline.co.uk. n
You can contact the Net Position on: firstname.lastname@example.org